Reflections on a Sixth Grade Field Trip
In the first weeks of school several Penn Charter classes — this year grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 — leave campus on trips that range from three-day overnights to one-day retreats.
Why the time away from the classroom? Because our school places great value in building community as well as developing positive and trusting relationships, we take trips early in the school year. This way, new students can acclimate more quickly, teachers and students can form bonds, and students can nurture familiar and new relationships with one another. In effect, the few days spent outside of the classroom has the impact of improving learning across many dimensions when the students return.
The trips are designed to provide opportunities for students to learn what it means to be a part of a community. By sharing meals together, cleaning up together, and engaging in challenging activities together, students learn how their behavior impacts the group, how to be part of a team, and how jumping out of their comfort zones can help them grow. Sometimes, like with the eighth grade trip to Washington DC, our teaching team weaves in pertinent and interesting curricular connections, and other times groups of students who might not typically hang out together are challenged to attain a goal, like the scavenger hunt on the sixth grade trip, and the famous lip sync contest on the seventh grade trip.
Director of Middle School Wilson Felter, in a reflection about the sixth grade trip, wrote about the growth that particular trip offered. And the importance of the "debrief." His reflection, below, first appeared in the October issue of MS Life, the newsletter for Middle School families.
“We can’t accomplish anything together without a plan,” replied one of our sixth graders to a debrief question from the camp counselor after a survival challenge. While there were many eloquent and spot-on comments all week from many of our students during our class trips, this one topped my list. Hopefully, by this time, your children have shared their impressions, struggles, joys and funny moments from their recent experience with their teachers and classmates, and if they have been reluctant, too tired or just generally mum about school, maybe this will shed some light.
The survival challenge was simple. The hypothetical plane we are all traveling on crashes and everyone survives, although many have debilitating injuries. The group needs to travel from point A to point B using a map in order to rendezvous with the rescue team. Along the way they have many challenges like helping the injured travel across rough terrain, navigating the rushing waters of a make-believe river, interpreting the map and more.
When the challenge began, the able-bodied members of the team rushed ahead in their desire to get to the rescue location quickly, and the injured struggled behind. (Adolescent Trait #1: For many, being first is important.) The most compassionate and empathic team members frustratingly yelled ahead to remind everyone that the people with broken legs and arms, loss of vision, etc. are important, too, as they struggled to carry, shimmy, piggy-back and guide those with injuries. (Don’t we all wish those were our kids!) Then the camp counselor reminded the group, for the third time, that the success of the mission was dependent upon everyone reaching the rescue location together.
Did I mention that while we were mostly in the shade of the woods, the temperatures hovered around 90 degrees, and all team members were operating on wildly varying amounts of sleep? (Adolescent Trait #2: They need massive amounts of sleep and nutrition. If not, they will become deregulated more quickly and evidence much less resilience.)
In my group, the injured were painstakingly reluctant to share how hard it was to hop on one foot for a quarter mile because one leg was broken, or share how frustrating it was to be blind and hear “just walk straight” from their guides. (Adolescent Trait #3: Most are super-reluctant to ask for help, especially when there is a chance that they will appear weak or less capable.) After some back-and-forth and the realization that the injured members of the group were struggling, there was more teamwork evident in helping them, although some were still focused on being first and some seemed resigned to just sit down and give up.
Then, as the team of students approached the rescue location, they were asked to cross a river and given instructions about how the stepping rocks, represented by colorful plastic disks on the ground, wash away in the river if stepped on and then vacated. In our group, the students had to restart when nearly all the rocks were swept away by the river after the first four people attempted to cross the river. (Adolescent Trait #4: They usually prefer to jump in and try something, rather than talk about it first and plan – and sometimes they haven’t even heard the directions.)
Our students' shining moments came during this last obstacle. In order to succeed, the group realized that each member could not move ahead without clearly communicating to the teammate behind them. And, that the injured students in the group needed guides who were strong, decisive and willing to communicate. After about 25 minutes, the last person exited the river to the safety of the other side, and the group roared with applause. (Adolescent Trait #5: When properly motivated, they can achieve nearly anything.)
Then came the debrief, and again, our students shined. When asked how it felt being injured and unable to walk normally, a student said, “I felt invisible until my friend spoke up for me.” Another student said his friend had good ideas, but that the group would not listen to him at first. And toward the end came the statement I opened with, “We can’t accomplish anything together without a plan.” (Adolescent Trait #6: They are fully capable of achieving impressive results when given agency and independence, and the freedom to make mistakes without judgment.)
The most powerful portion of the entire exercise was the debrief at the end. And, as a result, the team was much more successful in future endeavors because they had a shared experience of failure, and a shared experience of success. Our students did not require the wisdom of the adults, but rather needed the right questions, and time to respond and listen to one another. We have to constantly remind ourselves as teachers that the power of an experience lies in the debrief, and that we need to process and communicate together in order to help our students grow and learn.